BRATTLEBORO—In describing her life after winning the International Women of Courage Award, Fadia Thabet repeatedly used the word “irony.”
The School for International Training student, who won the award in March from the U.S. State Department for humanitarian work helping women and children in the southern Yemen war zone get food, water, clothing, and medical supplies, cannot leave the U.S.
Thabet has risked her life protecting children from recruitment by Al Qaeda and Houthi militias — thus preventing them from becoming terrorists — but she cannot leave the U.S.
Thabet, who collected evidence for the United Nations Security Council documenting human rights abuses committed against children in Yemen, cannot leave the U.S.
Thabet, who is working on a master’s degree in peace-building and conflict transformation, cannot bring her knowledge to organizations in other countries, or return to work helping victims in war zones because she cannot leave the U.S.
Fadia Thabet is from Yemen, one of six nations whose citizens are barred from entry into the United States by President Donald Trump’s executive order, signed in January and superseded in March.
The order, fraught with chaos and controversy, is under legal challenges, which might push it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the process, the Trump administration is prohibited from enforcing the so-called “travel ban.”
But as the legal battle makes its way through the judicial system, Thabet fears that if she crosses the border before she has completed her studies, she might not be permitted to return.
“It’s ironic. I left my country in the middle of a war, and here, I can’t leave the U.S.,” Thabet said.
And in another dose of irony, she was presented her award during a March 29 ceremony at the U.S. State Department by First Lady Melania Trump, the wife of the president who made the policy a signature issue in the 2016 election.
According to a December 2015 news release issued by his campaign, then-candidate Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
“It’s really frustrating for me,” she said. “I’m trapped because of a ‘Muslim ban,’ and I want to get back in a war zone, but I can’t get back into the U.S. It limits my options.”
‘Not interested in numbers anymore’
Thabet first came to the U.S. in 2015 through the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship, which would take her to Minnesota for 10 months to study human rights issues. She worked with an organization aiding refugees to the U.S., and helped develop a tool to work with child rape survivors.
It took her 25 days and two visas to get from Yemen to the U.S. Her travels included taking a bus trip over roads strewn with land mines to Hadhramaut, a city occupied by Al Qaeda, where she stayed for 14 days waiting for a travel visa, hiding her face for fear of being recognized, wary of being a woman traveling alone.
After the fellowship ended, Thabet searched for scholarships to allow her to continue her education in the U.S. Then SIT accepted Thabet into its Global Scholars program, which gives full scholarships to students from immigrant and refugee populations.
Thabet’s college education began not with humanitarian issues of any sort. Her bachelor’s degree, earned in Yemen, is in computer science.
After she graduated, Thabet was working in Abyan as a computer engineer for a local nongovernmental organization that aided refugees coming from the Horn of Africa. Her job was to maintain the NGO’s databases and website.
After college, Thabet said she wanted to “widen her view,” and in 2011, was pulled into humanitarian work by spending time with war victims and refugees at the NGO.
“I met Somalis who were running from conflict and spent 15 hours in a boat” getting to Yemen, Thabet said.
Her timing was right. In 2011, political unrest put Yemeni civilians in the middle of warring factions, and the infrastructure of the already-impoverished nation began crumbling further, leading to widespread hunger and no access to medical treatment and supplies, or clean water and sanitation.
“I decided, I’m not interested in numbers anymore — and I’m really great at numbers. You’re just interacting with a screen. I wanted to interact with the beneficiaries themselves,” Thabet said.
A scary mission
Thabet applied for a job as a United Nations child protection officer in Yemen.
At first, the UN rebuffed her, but she assured them she “100-percent wanted the job.” Two weeks later, she got it.
Her first mission was in Abyan in July, 2011, during the time of the Arab Spring, and the city was in conflict, and in chaos, with Al Qaeda “rising up” in southern Yemen, Thabet said.
“It was a scary mission,” she said. “We were planning to walk into a place ... with child kidnappings, terrorists, land mines. I was so scared, I was holding my heart. I saw bodies in the street."
“We were humanitarian workers. Not technical experts on land mines,” Thabet said.
Continuing her work, Thabet led a mission for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Then, in 2014, UNICEF nominated her as team leader for the National Emergency Assessment Team.
For this role, Thabet was working in Aden, where militias surrounded the city with 7,000 land mines.
She was responsible for more than seven states in southern Yemen, while “the whole country fell into chaos,” she said.
“My city was occupied by rebels,” Thabet said. “Rebels occupied my office and all NGOs. International workers fled, and I was the only one left in my organization. It was all on my shoulders to supply food, clothing, water, and medical supplies to displaced peoples in Aden from around the country.
“I saw things I never thought I would see. I saw children snipered while playing in the street, women snipered while cooking in their homes for their families.
“Dengue fever killed 5,000 people in my city because of medical shortages. I was working with Doctors Without Borders. I negotiated with child kidnappers.”
One day, her work took her to a hospital to visit children who had been shot by militia snipers.
“It was noon, very hot,” with temperatures rising above 125 degrees Fahrenheit, “and I had to walk 40 minutes to the hospital,” with a veil covering her face. During the walk, “I had to hide my head behind a car to avoid a sniper’s shot,” Thabet said.
‘You work for the people. You work for the kids’
Thabet wears a hijab, but doesn’t cover her face. But because of the nature of her work — including helping children escape militia recruiters, and documenting it all for the U.N. — she often used a veil to hide her identity.
At SIT, Thabet said she was able to learn the theories behind what she practiced in Yemen.
And she had a few pieces of advice for those working on the Yemeni peace-building process.
“They need to involve grassroots groups and young women in peace talks. They’re only targeting conflict parties, not civil society. We need more women — young women — to be part of this,” Thabet said.
“And not just practicing peace from Western standards, but looking at the local culture,” she said.
Thabet had kind words for her SIT professors, especially in light of “juggling around” the media attention since her award with her studies.
“My professors understood. They’ve been really spectacular,” she said.
The Commons tried reaching Thabet for months after her award was announced, but it was only after the semester ended and she returned to a part-time youth social-justice job in Minnesota that she could find time for an interview.
About her International Women of Courage Award, Thabet said, “when I was doing this work, I never thought I’d get this recognition.” For her, the humanitarian work was “coming from the heart.”
“You work for the people. You work for the kids,” she said.
‘I have to be courageous enough to talk about this’
When Thabet learned she would receive the award, she wasn’t immediately sure she would accept it.
“It took me a long time to think” about it, in light of the travel ban and other political considerations. Would it put her family at risk? she wondered.
She decided to accept it because “I want to use this as a platform, to tell people about the cholera in my country, the forgotten war, the kids kidnapped for recruitment into militias. I want to advocate for the good people of Yemen, that we aren’t all terrorists,” she said.
Again, Thabet mentioned irony.
“I’m a young woman working in humanitarian work, and people focus on one thing: the cloth,” Thabet said, referring to the hijab that identifies her as Muslim. She wants the world to “look beyond that” and focus on leadership, especially that of young women.
“I’m talking about implementing humanitarian law on the ground, I need to hold everyone accountable — the Yemeni government, the militias,” Thabet said. She faults most international media outlets for focusing on ISIS and other coalitions, “but 40 percent of the crimes in Yemen committed against children were committed by militias.”
“We have to acknowledge what the rebels are doing,” she said.
“My goal is to get a hearing at the UN about crimes the militia is committing, not just the coalitions,” Thabet said, adding, “I have evidence.”
“Accepting this award is putting me at risk,” she said, but, “my agenda is to advocate, to make people pay attention.”
In the face of these risks, and amidst the president’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies, Thabet said “it’s worth it” to accept the award.
“I have to be courageous enough to talk about this,” she said, then pointed out, “this is a ‘courageous woman’ award.”